Federal funding to bolster Colorado River system's drought resilience

Federal funding initiatives are set to address the severe drought affecting the Colorado River system through water conservation and infrastructure projects.
Daniel Lehewych
The Colorado River

In response to ongoing drought conditions, federal officials are working with states on a significant slate of projects to safeguard the beleaguered Colorado River system. These projects come as part of a tentative agreement with Arizona, California, and Nevada to curb river water usage.

On May 24, the U.S. Dept. of the Interior Bureau of Reclamation began accepting proposals for long-term efficiency enhancement projects. These initiatives should result in tangible water savings in Lake Mead, located on the Arizona-Nevada border, or provide additional water to an applicant's supply, thus reducing river water usage.

Selected projects will be financed by the $4.6 billion from last year's Inflation Reduction Act, allocated for water management and conservation efforts in the Colorado River basin and other drought-stricken areas.

Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton emphasized the importance of these initiatives: "The projects funded under the program will help increase water conservation, improve water efficiency, and prevent the system's reservoirs from falling to critically low elevations, threatening water deliveries and hydropower production."

The western U.S. has been battling prolonged droughts leading to record-low water levels in reservoirs within the river system, including Lake Mead and Lake Powell, straddling the Utah-Arizona border. The dwindling conditions have sparked concerns about reservoir levels dropping below the minimum required to operate the Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams hydroelectric power plants.

What projects are ensured under the agreement?

Under the terms of this conservation agreement, the three lower basin states have committed to reducing river system water use by 3 million acre-feet through 2026. In addition, the states will be compensated up to 2.3 million acre-feet of conserved water through the Inflation Reduction Act, with an estimated total compensation reported by the Associated Press to be around $1.2 billion.

Adel Hagekhalil, general manager of the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, remarked that the agreement would bring much-needed short-term stability to the river system.

The Bureau also announced eight conservation agreements with water entities in Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz., designed to conserve up to 393,000 acre-feet of water through 2025.

In addition to funds from the Inflation Reduction Act, the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act set aside $8.3 billion for the Bureau to enhance water infrastructure projects for drought resilience and access to clean water.

Funding has been allocated for projects benefiting the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona, which recently reached a conservation agreement. As a result, the community will receive $50 million for conservation efforts, leading to a notable increase in Lake Mead's elevation.

The department invests $73 million for water delivery system infrastructure repairs, including work on the Imperial Dam outside Yuma, Ariz., and $71 million for 32 drought resilience projects in eight states. A further $20 million is earmarked for small surface and groundwater storage projects in California and Utah.

In addition, 21 water recycling projects, primarily based in California, are slated to receive a combined $281 million, leading to a significant boost in annual water capacity.

The central portion of the funding goes to the Gila River Indian Community, which comprises the Akimel O'odham (Pima) and Pee-Posh (Maricopa) tribes. They are set to receive $50 million for conservation, which officials claim will result in an elevation increase of nearly 2 feet in Lake Mead. The community has also agreed to conserve an additional 125,000 acre-feet of water in 2024 and 2025, for which they will receive an extra $50 million each year.

The Interior Department is further providing $83 million to the Gila River Indian Community to restore a 19-mile water pipeline to boost irrigation water delivery. The pipeline project, helmed by contractor T&T Construction Inc. and designer Stantec, initiated work on May 19, as reported by the Arizona Mirror.

Another significant allocation is $73 million earmarked for repairing water delivery system infrastructures, including the Imperial Dam outside Yuma, Ariz. An additional $71 million will fund 32 drought resilience projects across eight states.

California and Utah are slated to receive $20 million for small surface and groundwater storage projects. Among these are a reservoir project in Imperial Valley, Calif., and the first phase of a scheme to construct recharge basins, recovery wells, and conveyance infrastructure in Kern County, Calif.

Moreover, 21 water recycling projects, predominantly located in California, will receive $281 million. These projects are projected to increase annual water capacity by 127,000 acre-feet.

Deputy Interior Secretary Tommy Beaudreau affirmed the success of these conservation agreements, stating, "These locally-led conservation agreements reflect our sustained progress in increasing water conservation across the West."

The conservation initiatives and infrastructure projects underscore the federal government's serious commitment to addressing the urgent drought conditions impacting the Colorado River system.

The collaboration with states and local entities and the funding allocation will significantly bolster the river system's resilience against ongoing drought and ensure the sustainable management of this crucial water resource.

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